Age of Blight: Stories
By Kristine Ong Muslim
The Unnamed Press, 2016
Reviewed by Seana Graham
In a brief preface entitled “A Note on the Places in this book,” Kristine Ong Muslim (whose short fiction has been featured at Escape Into Life) describes the world—or worlds—we are about to enter. In reality, the place markers don’t help us much, and may even refer to junctions and landmarks that appear in her other works, such as the Station Tower, where, if you break the glass of the case holding the fire extinguisher, you’ll find the time loop. The main thing to take note of here is that you are entering Kristine Ong Muslim’s universe. It may not be so easy to get out again.
The anthology is broken up into four sections. “Animals” starts us off in a world we mostly know, although not perhaps from the perspective we normally consider it. The three stories in this section tell of things we may already be aware of, such as the story of Layka, the Russian dog who proceeded human beings into space (and rather notoriously died there). But it’s Layka’s ghost who tells the story this time. Similarly, the well known experiments by one Harry F. Harlow, who wanted to see how much isolation an infant monkey could stand, are told from the viewpoint of “The Wire Mother,” one of the harsh iron fixtures that was substituted for a mother of flesh and blood. These stories demonstrate one of the overarching themes of the book, which is just how far human beings are willing to go for the sake of curiosity at the expense of our fellow creatures, and, of course, of each other.
This theme extends into the next section, entitled “Children,” with its first story, “No Little Bobos.” It is based on the real life experiments of one Alfred Bandura, who showed his test children an adult violently attacking a Bobo doll, and then watched to see what the children would do to a Bobo doll thereafter. As you might imagine, the results were not good for the Bobo doll.
The children in “Jude and the Moonman” don’t seem to need adult instigation at all to torment a fellow creature. But the protagonist is not driven by innate cruelty so much as by a rigid sense of what a human being is, and what lies outside of human bounds and human customs.
He is wrong about this, however, and the distinctions between human and other grow ever harder to draw as the book continues on into the realms of the “Instead of Human” section, where it’s not that surprising when one’s sister turns into a zombie, or a colleague is gradually consumed by a mysterious process called the Empty. It’s a world where having your tentacle removed doesn’t necessarily prevent you from having a monster’s predatory urges.
The last section, also entitled “The Age of Blight” deals with events of a larger scope, such as those of “Day of the Builders,” which describes a ‘first contact’ story from the point of view of those who have been colonized. Its pattern is archetypal rather than speaking of a specific historical instance, showing that all such stories have pretty much the same foreordained trajectory.
And yet the final story, “History of the World,” brings us back to the human scale and the human predicament, as one man finds himself in an inextricable position on the face of the cliff. It is pointless to hold on, and yet he does. How long will he do so and why?
The dark mood of the book is aided by its disquieting photographs and drawings. As Ong Muslim explains, the drawings come from a book published in 1665, Fortuno Liceti’s De Monstris. Her acknowledgements end with a quote from Liceti:
It is said that I see the convergence of both Nature and art, because one or the other not being able to make what they want, they at least make what they can.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.